Final Verdict: Choking on Malpractice
Everyone with a driver’s license knows there are certain basic rules which apply regardless of where they are. You have to stay on your side of the street, except to pass. You should obey the speed limit. You have to keep your seatbelt fastened at all times. You need to look left, then right, then left again before you pull out across a busy intersection.
In the same way, anyone with a medical license knows that certain basic rules should be followed with every medical procedure. Certain signs that point to stroke or heart attack always require immediate intervention. Suspicious symptoms need to be checked before releasing a patient. When a patient is undergoing anesthesia, the airway has to be protected to prevent choking. An anesthesiologist who failed to protect a patient’s airway during surgery, leading to that patient’s death, was slapped with medical malpractice damages of over $3.4 million by a Fairfax County jury in January 2019.
On February 20 of 2015, 28-year-old Vincent Minor was admitted to the surgical unit at INOVA Fairfax Hospital for removal of a laparoscopic adjustable band (lap band) placed during gastric bypass surgery. A lap band is a device which constricts the upper part of the stomach, assisting in weight loss for obese individuals who are unable to lose weight in other ways. Vincent had tolerated the lap band well for eleven years, but went to the hospital in February 2015 with nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and difficulty swallowing.
A CT scan by the hospital doctors showed that the lap band had come loose, slipping out of place and causing herniation in the stomach. Additionally, its placement was causing Vincent’s esophagus (the lower part of the throat that connects to the stomach) to swell. The band needed to be immediately removed, and Vincent was moved into surgery right away.
A major risk of any surgery involving general anesthesia (putting the patient to sleep) involves aspiration. With reflexes and consciousness suppressed, the patient can involuntarily vomit stomach contents up the esophagus and into the airways, leading to liquids or solids blocking the bronchi and lungs. Stomach acid is corrosive, and so this often leads to a condition called aspiration pneumonia, in which the damaged lung tissue becomes saturated with fluid and cannot respirate.
In order to prevent aspiration, an anesthesiologist should suction out the stomach and be ready to put in a breathing tube at any time. However, in Vincent’s case, the surgery proceeded without these precautions. When Vincent began vomiting during the procedure, they continued with the surgery. The aspiration of vomit caused pneumonitis, or increased inflammation of lung tissue, and went into acute respiratory distress.
After the surgery, Vincent was unable to breathe normally and was placed on a ventilator. He died a month later, and the family sued for medical malpractice. During the week-long trial, Vincent’s family used medical malpractice attorneys like Cohen & Cohen to argue that the doctors were negligent by failing to assess the risks of aspiration and failing to protect Vincent. The jury agreed. After only three hours, they returned a verdict which found significant medical malpractice and awarded $3,401,451.00 in damages for wrongful death and surgical error.